(Today, I have a special treat for you all. My friend and sometime hiking buddy, Aprille Dembsky, is doing a guest post! She and I were talking about my recent posts about mistakes made while hiking, and she told me about this group trip from a couple of years ago. Aprille knows better. Most of the people on this large group hike know better. And yet…)
by Aprille Dembsky
To set the scene: a week-long vacation in Las Vegas over New Year’s Eve with 15 friends from college. Average age: about 30. On the first day, we did a relatively tame hike in the nearby Red Rocks Park. The path was well-marked and popular (i.e. crowded) and left us feeling a tad cocky. Towards the end of the week, after days drinking like we were still in college, 10 of us decided to find a “real” hike.
We planned to leave at 10:00 in the morning, but Dan was still in bed.
“Dude, I’m so hung over. Fifteen more minutes?”
“Dude, we are ALL WAITING in the van. We are leaving NOW!”
“He’s coming! Hold on!”
Which was following by nine other people grumbling. Once on the road, Dan asks to stop at McDonalds for breakfast. Somebody throws him a Powerbar and says no.
Everybody packed their own bag. We half-heartedly coordinated food and supplies, but we didn’t have a first aid kit. We headed to the Valley of Fire State Park in a rented white panel van.
There had been some changes to the Valley of Fire State Park in the 12 years since the guide book was printed. The marquee trail, “vigorous and isolated, with panoramic views” had been paved over. What used to be a five-mile trek was now a scenic drive, ending with a half-mile scramble to the top of a small hill.
Greatly discouraged, we asked the Visitor Center if any “real” hikes still existed.
“Well, I don’t recommend it,” worried glance at our motley crew of hiking boots and sneakers, dry-wicking pants and jeans, and Andy, who was recovering from a car accident and walking with a cane, “but one part of the park is an open wilderness. Folks can go hiking in there, but it’s an interpretive hike, no trail markings. We have maps, but we suggest you use GPS.”
Interpretive hiking sounded perfect. No, we didn’t have a compass or GPS (this was just before everybody owned an iPhone). It was almost noon, so we finished the few sandwiches. We cracked a few jokes about how little water we had for a journey into the chilly winter desert.
We drove to the start of the hike, and saw two people exiting, heading to their pick-up truck. Rugged and withered, the man and woman each wore large packs, broad hats, and exhausted smiles. Their large dog (St. Bernard, perhaps) was wearing a pack containing two empty water bottles.
“Y’all know where you’re going?” the gentleman asked.
“Oh, yeah, sure. We’re just gonna take a look around.”
“Y’all take care now.” He was too polite to say what he was obviously thinking: “you stupid city kids.”
The head of the interpretive hike was on a hill, giving us a good vantage point of a vast valley below. It was rocky and tree-less (making for few natural landmarks.) There were no other cars parked at the trail head, and we could see no other hikers.
“This is wrong on so many levels” mused Carl, who had studied geology in college. “At least let’s stay together.” The beginning descent was steep, and the rocky ground was unsteady. At this point, Andy wisely decided to sit out, rather than risk further injury to his hip. Ian offered to stay with Andy.
We continued to separate after that. Miguel ran to follow some tracks in the dust while Dan tried to scale a large boulder. We called back and forth to each other, trying to keep in verbal contact. After about 15 minutes, we heard a thump, and then “Oh, shit.” “What?” “What, what?” “Where?” “I’m OK, I’m just stuck.” Josh had jumped in a hole. Yes, Josh, an accomplished lawyer and military serviceman, saw a large crevice between two desert rocks, and decided to jump into the natural cave. And he was stuck, because the sides of the rock were smooth.
Much humor ensued, jokes about leaving Josh behind, jokes about how everybody ELSE would meet their death. Carl noted that we could no longer see the trail head or the van. “Andy and Ian took it! They’ve driving back to the Strip now!”
The end of the story is far less interesting than the set-up. This is because we were lucky, as well as dumb. We managed to extricate Josh from the cave, and after that, we stuck together. After a short loop we returned to the van and drove back to the City of Sin.